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The American Presidency, by Forrest McDonald

Twice, in The American Presidency, Professor Forrest McDonald states that the executive office of our government “has been responsible for less harm and more good … than perhaps any other secular institution in history.” In the same sentence, he also notes that “the caliber of the people who have served as chief executive has declined erratically but persistently from the day George Washington left office.” And elsewhere, McDonald acknowledges that he is “not sanguine about its [the presidency’s] future and [does] not feel how anyone who lived through the 1992 presidential election could be.” The decline of the presidency follows the transformation of a nation. When the dreaded bureaucracy first arose, only a handful of men toiled for the state. By the 1920s, the bureaucratic machinery had exploded in size-over 120 federal units running the country and the worst was yet to come.

The author of histories on both the Washington and the Jefferson eras, McDonald devotes two chapters to the administrations of those two leaders. Again, Washington shines through as the indispensable man; the triumphant general who, unlike a Caesar or a Cromwell, did not use his military victories as a springboard for dictatorial rule. Instead, he resigned his post as commanding general of the Continental Army as soon as the Revolutionary War ended. This and other acts of self-denial convinced the Founding Fathers that Washington could be trusted with the new office, one that avoided the trappings of a monarchy, but also one that would project an image of strength and authority. Washington’s genius was that he understood the “dual nature” of the office: a president who was not only a competent executive, but also a man who performed equally important ceremonial duties. Washington guided the former colonies through the transformation from a monarchy to a republic by “serving as the symbol of nationhood …. [H]e behaved as if [his] every move was being closely scrutinized.” This recalls one of Washington’s favorite dicta, that a man must be a gentleman, as well as always give the appearance of a gentleman. This dual role worked splendidly for Washington; as such, the image of the presidency began taking shape.

Then came Thomas Jefferson, who inaugurated an activist presidency. The word “activist” has obviously changed in meaning over the years. Jefferson, of course, did not propose a welfare state, but he did pursue a forceful foreign policy. Jefferson further defined the office. He “humanized” the office both by being a “man of the people,” and by being part of a “natural aristocracy,” or what Richard Weaver would call an aristocracy of achievement. For Jefferson, being the symbol of a nation wasn’t enough. A president needed to set and control the political agenda. He needed to steer his own legislation through Congress and act decisively in foreign engagements. Thus Jefferson created the image of the president as the nation’s maximum political leader.

The idea of a strong president who can handle Congress remains popular in the public mind. Signs of weakness in the Oval Office or an inability to get legislation through Congress is often a prescription for political disaster.

The legacies of Washington and Jefferson left great burdens on their successors. Few presidents could approach Washington’s ability to combine executive competence and a strong, reassuring image. Jefferson left behind a more powerful (and jealous) Congress that would stymie future presidents.

Rating presidents has become a favorite game for some historians. McDonald doesn’t play along, but he leaves little doubt that Washington and Jefferson were our two finest presidents; the office has been a “troubled institution” ever since. What went wrong? Again, there was a “decline in caliber,” but also there was the evolution of the United States from an agrarian, hierarchical society to an urban, industrial nation. By the early twentieth century, technological and industrial revolutions, urbanization, and population growth, fueled by massive immigration, left many Americans feeling as if they were living in a foreign country. The public felt overwhelmed by such changes and the presidency suffered along with the rest of the nation. Theodore Roosevelt tried to stem runaway trends; a civil service devoted to reform became popular, but even his administration saw continued growth in a centralized bureaucracy.

Throughout much of the book, McDonald details a history conservatives know all too well: government became larger and less efficient; more laws were passed, less order was found in towns and neighborhoods. Concerning alcohol, drugs and crime, Congress and various presidents felt something should be done. But the legislation passed through the decades did nothing to stop a trend towards disorder. Increasingly the job of the president became an enormous physical burden on its occupants. In the pre-Civil War era the average president’s life was a full 73 years. But in the post-Civil War era, with technology increasing life expectancies, the average presidential age is only 63 years. The social upheavals caused by the industrial and technological revolutions contributed considerably to a president’s burden, but there were other, more fool-hardy factors involved.

For years, conservatives have been told that it was Abraham Lincoln with the Civil War, the suspension of habeas corpus, the imprisonment of political rivals, the shutting down of opposition newspapers, and other dubious acts- who was responsible for the imperial presidency. McDonald acknowledges Lincoln’s extraordinary behavior, but from this book it appears that a corner was turned during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. The size of government kept expanding, but here, too, also was a president who saw himself as the “leader of the free world” on a mission to spread democracy everywhere. Wilson’s bequests were America’s entry into World War 1, the failed League of Nations and a messianic quest to remake the world in America’s image. From then on, administrations which had little success with Congress concerning domestic affairs often turned to foreign policy to conduct grand strategies (New World Order, “nation-building”), and to embark on empire-building and gain political victories through military action that increase poll ratings.

Wilson’s messianic visions have been shared, more or less, by most succeeding presidents-Harding and Eisenhower come to mind as exceptions. Something had changed with the office. Now the image of a president as a mighty commander-in-chief and as the “most powerful man in the world” was born. In an era when foreign affairs dominated the agenda, there was plenty of eccentric thinking from both the Left and Right. Liberals, for instance, liked the idea of a strong presidency when Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy were in power, but soon complained about an “imperial presidency” when Richard Nixon came to office. Similarly, Robert Taft conservatives sought to disengage the country from overseas commitments (opposition to NATO, foreign aid programs), but during the Reagan Administration many conservatives complained about “535 Secretaries of State” micro-managing foreign policy, when in fact, this sphere was the domain of the commander-in-chief.

With the Cold War over and with a public less interested in foreign affairs, the presidency, it seems, might make its way back to its original role as custodian of the constitution. But one chapter, “lmages and Elections, Myths and Symbols,” underscores McDonald’s earlier pessimism. It is fine for a president, as George Washington understood, to project a noble image, to be a “living embodiment of the nation.” But in an age of mass media, all this has been taken to extremes. A president is still expected to be demigod who can singlehandedly save the nation. Sound bites, consultants, pollsters, obligations to fund-raisers-it has become impossible for any man to speak with much candor and sincerity about the nation’s problems and win a national election. To be sure, in the primary season some candidates do come forward with straight talk about economic and social decline. But in every instance, such candidates are savaged by the media as either bigots or flakes. Not only that, they run into fierce opposition from their party’s hierarchy, who prefer “experienced” politicos that pose no threat to the status quo. And so, we are left with issues determined by endless polls and “study groups” among ordinary citizens. It takes a clever man to make it to the top and an equally clever administration to keep a president in power for more than four years. Yet all of this has little to do with a declining standard of living and a cultural revolution that is separating the country from its Western heritage. Modern presidents are happy just to survive their terms.

The American Presidency is an epic undertaking, meticulously researched and footnoted, written in the conversational style that readers have come to enjoy in McDonald’s works. The author leaves no doubt that much criticism can be leveled at a people who expect a president to be a miracle-worker. But recent administrations aren’t blameless. Is it asking too much for a president to have the nerve to shut down federal agencies, or to drop the quest for a New World Order, or seal off the country’s borders from illegal immigrants? This book is a strong reminder that no one man is going to reverse the nation’s decline.

Books by Forrest McDonald may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 1996).

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